-WARD(S).

Helen DeWitt has a book coming out later this year (hurrah!), and having had her editor suggest she make her use of “afterward(s)” and “backward(s)” consistent, she started trying to find out what actual usage was, and having found little satisfaction, she did what any sensible person would do and wrote Language Log to ask. Mark Liberman responds with a most interesting post, providing this summary and then going on to give some numbers:

• The choice between X-ward and X-wards is subject to variation in all regions and registers.
• In the case of back- and after-, American English uses a higher proportion of -ward forms than British English does (and the proportion of afterward forms in British English is very low).
• In the case of backward(s), in both American and British English, conversation shows a lower proportion of -ward forms (and thus a higher proportion of -wards forms) than academic prose does.
• In the case of afterward(s), American English also shows more -wards forms in conversation than in academic prose, while British English seems to go the opposite way, though there are too few -wards forms overall to be confident about the relationship.
• At least in American English, these patterns seem to be stable over time.

As I say in a comment there, I’ve been wondering about this myself—I’ve been enforcing a style guide that requires -ward on the MSS I edit, but I wasn’t sure what the facts of usage were, including my own. Head over there for details and a good discussion, and while you’re there check out this thread discussing Lameen Souag’s post on Libyan dialect features in Gaddafi Jr’s speech.

Comments

  1. Funny that their/there should rear its head in a passage about enforcing a style guide.

  2. Yeah, Hat, as a copy-editor you should give your copy-editor a piece of your mind. What in the world coming to ?

  3. Grumbly: I’ll defend Hat. The hardest work to copyread is your own.

  4. Roger Depledge says:

    I’ve been enforcing a style guide that requires -ward on the MSS I edit, but I wasn’t sure what the facts of usage were, including my own.

    This may be an appropriate time to express the irritation I feel, given the derision copiously heaped by LH and LL on prescriptivists (poppycock!) and peevers, at the free ride given the authors of these style guides that require, rather than recommend, usage at a trivial level (New Yorker: coöperation, teen-ager). We all have to earn our daily bread, but is it really impossible to question these autocrats on Mount Sinai?

  5. You don’t seem to understand what style guides (of the Chicago type) are about. The point is not to tell people how to use their language (as prescriptivist peevers do), the point is to make sure that printed material is consistent. Of course it’s trivial whether periods go inside or outside of quotation marks, or whether one or another form of a suffix is used, but it needs to be consistent in a given publication. You may disagree, but in a fight between those who care and those who don’t care, those who care will win every time, because they care. Some of us notice whether a printed work does not appear to have been edited, proofread, and printed with care, and we take it less seriously on that account. No one is telling you what you can or can’t say or do, but if you want a book published by Oxford UP, it’s going to have Oxford commas. If you don’t like it, publish it yourself.

  6. Paul: Grumbly: I’ll defend Hat. The hardest work to copyread is your own.
    Don’t I know it. Actually I was defending Hat by pretending in a jokey spirit to play along with what Wimbrel said. I left a clue to humor in the form of a typo of my own: “What in the world coming to ?”.

  7. I wonder if anyone has declined the OUP’s offer to publish their book on the grounds that they don’t like the Oxford comma?

  8. John Emerson says:

    but if you want a book published by Oxford UP, it’s going to have Oxford commas.
    And if you want your book to be proofread carefull from one ent to the other, you also should go to a different publisher.

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    There are two different issues here: 1) what sort of items should be internally consistent for consistency’s own sake to send a positive signal of quality to the reader; 2) what domain should internal consistency be sought over? As to 1, it is not clear to me that -ward v. -wards is parallel to the relative order of periods and quotation marks. Many people seem to use both -ward and -wards in free variation (or perhaps in context-dependent patterns), and, if pressed, would not concede that they’re being inconsistent any more than it is inconsistent to use more than one of a set of synonyms or near-synonyms over the course of a book. As to 2, a single work by a single author that is internally inconsistent on certain technical points of punctuation etc. may give off a bad vibe, but it does not follow that internally consistent book A and internally consistent book B from the same publisher need be internally consistent in the same way. Indeed, enforcing that sort of house style means a given author’s works will lack overall internal consistency unless he always uses the same publisher. (Does OUP enforce UK spelling conventions on US authors?) It may make sense for a news periodical to enforce a higher degree of stylebook consistency on its reporters regardless of byline, but it’s not clear that the same set of arbitrary choices ought to be foisted on, e.g., bylined op-eds written by outsiders. As long as those pieces are internally consistent taken individually, I don’t think byline-to-byline variation would indicate that it’s a sloppily edited publication; rather it might suggest that it’s a publication not edited by bureaucrats and automatons. Now, it is always easier for a copyeditor to make a document internally consistent by imposing the copyeditor’s own preferences (or the known preferences of whoever is paying the copyeditor) rather than the author’s preferences, but let’s not pretend anything more high-toned is going on. And the publishing industry is perhaps not in such glowing financial health as to justify striking a my-way-or-the-highway attitude.

  10. Obviously not everyone appreciates the value of style manuals and internal consistency, just as not everyone appreciates rhyme and meter, or the infield fly rule. Fortunately, those who don’t can simply ignore the whole affair, and those of us who earn a living from enforcing the rules will continue to find employment. That said, I agree with this:
    it is not clear to me that -ward v. -wards is parallel to the relative order of periods and quotation marks. Many people seem to use both -ward and -wards in free variation (or perhaps in context-dependent patterns), and, if pressed, would not concede that they’re being inconsistent any more than it is inconsistent to use more than one of a set of synonyms or near-synonyms over the course of a book.
    That’s exactly why I was so interested to see what the Log had to say about it.

  11. Can I completely change the subject and ask a question? I just got this “breaking news” email:
    Justice Department will no longer defend law banning same-sex marriage
    Do any of you find that hard to understand? I had to read it several times before I could get it. I assume my difficulty is with combination of negatives — but what exactly is the problem?

  12. Oh, and Mr Hat: How would a copy-editor change the phrase to make it clearer?

  13. Do any of you find that hard to understand?
    How about: “The Justice Department will no longer support legislation against same-sex marriage”. Or: “will no longer draft legislation preventing same-sex marriage”.
    I suspect the original formulation may sound confused for the following reason: for so long so many people have been campaigning pro and contra this simple issue, using all the legal phraseology and tricky conceptual maneuvers they could find, that nobody quite knows what’s going on anymore.

  14. What I mean is: the bandwagon of Hegelian dialectic has run out of sublation at 32nd and Vine. Hegel knew how to deal with such a situation. So did the guy who said: “Just do it!”.

  15. The Justice Department will no longer support legislation against same-sex marriage.
    Yes, that’s clearer. I guess the problem is that in the news flash, you have to un-negative the phrase. If the law bans same-sex marriage and if the Justice Department is no longer defending it, it means (flip it) the Justice Department is approving same-sex marriage. Or at least not fighting it.
    It’s late.

  16. mab, I imagine that in Russia this issue is handled more straightforwardly – it just ain’t on. There’s a lot to be said for clarity of any kind, because it helps you to figure out who might be a friend and who probably is an enema.

  17. Ha! Did you mean to write “enema”?
    Yeah, same-sex marriage ain’t happening here any time soon…

  18. Roger Depledge says:

    Thanks, LH, for a polite and patient reply. I use Chicago 16 and MWDEU regularly and appreciate the thought they have given to such matters and their undogmatic nature. I hold no brief for the prescriptive peevers, but their arguments are very similar to

    You may disagree, but in a fight between those who care and those who don’t care, those who care will win every time, because they care. Some of us notice whether…[insert peeve] and we take it less seriously on that account.

    Furthermore, the peevers have less power of enforcement than the publishers. My point is that there are ridiculous and unexplained requirements in house style guides that perhaps deserve more questioning, and that people who care about language but express that fact poorly may deserve a little less abuse.

  19. I know the arguments seem similar, but they’re really not—or rather, the arguments are similar but applied to completely different things, with the result that in one area they work and in the other they fail utterly. I and my fellow sticklers for editorial standards are applying the argument to published writing, saying that for various reasons it is a Good Thing that such writing exhibit certain forms of consistency in relatively trivial matters such as spelling and punctuation. The peevers are applying them to language in general, spoken and written, and claiming that failure to employ their randomly chosen set of shibboleths (which vary from one peever to the next) is a sign of moral degeneracy, or at the very least social and cultural inadequacy. It’s like comparing a willingness to kill insects with a willingness to kill your fellow man; the comparison is nonsensical and exasperating. I confess to getting perhaps excessively exasperated, but you must remember I’ve been on the front lines of this war for decades now, and my patience has worn thin.

  20. And don’t get me started on the people who think it’s clever to say “Oh, you claim to reject standards, and yet you follow them yourself in your writing!”

  21. If mab’s still here… it’s past her bedtime. No, if mab’s still here, the first item on the front page of the NY Times is an article “U.S., in Shift, Sees Marriage Act as Violation of Gay Rights”.

  22. I’ve heard of “the sex act”, but I’ve never heard weddings called “the marriage act” before.

  23. Grown, it’s not the wedding that’s the marriage act, it’s the Defense of Marriage Act (aka no recognition of same sex by the federal government) that’s the marriage act.

  24. Yes, I read the article and finally understood what it was all about. And I see that part of the problem is the “no longer defend,” which is not to say “will support.” I’m wondering if anyone else had trouble understanding the phrase and why (from the point of view of language).

  25. I wonder whether there’s been any influence in British English of the noun “forwards”, much used in two of the three civilised football codes, but presumably not in the American one? I think you use oaf-fence and dee-fence there, do you not?

  26. It’s off-fence, but yes.

  27. “It’s off-fence”: damn; I thought I might have made a half decent joke with “oaf-fence”.

  28. I take “defend” in the technical sense, the legal sense. The original headline seemed clear to me. If there’s a legal dispute about this law, don’t look to the US dept of justice to appear on the side that wants to enforce it.

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